It has now become orthodoxy for historians to write about political texts as being part of discourses or languages. This approach has much merit. At the very least, the work of Quentin Skinner, J. G. A. Pocock and John Dunn has encouraged historians to use a broader range of sources, and to ground their analysis of political thought in a firm historical context. (1) Beyond this, discourse analysis offers a means of establishing a causal relationship between political thought and political action. To echo Richard Ashcraft's definition, political theory is not merely a product of its social context. It supplies the criteria according to which the actions appropriate for changing that context are rendered intelligible. (2) For Skinner and Pocock, the governing paradigms of political discourses, as much as concrete institutions and social structures, have an influence on political actions. However, this approach also has some limitations. Even after the "linguistic turn," the history of political thought is still predominantly concerned with the accurate recovery of the meaning of texts, not with the reception or dissemination of ideas. To realize the full impact of political texts, we need to uncover not only the author's intentions in writing, but also the ways in which these works were read and used by their audience.
This article focuses on the use of casuistry as political language between 1640 and 1692, in particular on its use as a means to resolve difficulties over taking various oaths of loyalty. By looking at the different channels through which the casuist's advice was dispensed and the ways in which readers received, understood, and used those texts it will be shown that employing casuistic discourse was more than a stylistic affectation or rhetorical ploy. It was adopted in response to a public need for ethical problem solving in matters of political obedience. The ways in which printed and manuscript works of casuistry influenced the political behavior of their readers will be traced through diaries and private letters. The implications of using casuistry as a language of politics will be explored, focusing specifically on the impact on the authority of the writer's resolutions. Finally, the article will examine the use of casuistic discourse in the debate over swearing allegiance to William and Mary. It will s uggest that, while the language of casuistry continued to dominate controversies over taking oaths of loyalty, the role of the casuist and the value of casuistic advice had become devalued.
To explore the use of casuistry (the branch of moral theology devoted to resolving ethical dilemmas in particular cases) as a political language it is important to note a number of its main features. Protestant casuistry was used to resolve an incredible variety of cases, ranging from the trivial, "Is it lawful to eat black pudding?," to the essential, "How can we be assured of spiritual election?"(3) English casuistry had never restricted itself to discussing religious cases. All English casuists were agreed that human laws obliged the conscience indirectly via St. Paul's injunction to obey the higher powers. Anglican casuists in particular spent much of their works discussing the relationship between temporal laws and the conscience. The use of casuistry in the Civil War to discuss questions of political obedience was not unprecedented. Seventeenth-century England had already had one grand political case of conscience in the controversy over the oath of allegiance to James I, imposed in 1606.(4) Oaths place d an especially heavy obligation upon the conscience through the invocation of divine witness. By calling on God to witness their oath, swearers risked bringing divine retribution upon themselves if their oath should prove false. The gravity of the sins of prejury and scandal, as much as the temporal penalties for breaking an oath, warned of the danger of breaking promises before God.(5) Casuistry offered a methodology whereby individuals might learn how best to fulfil their political obligations without at the same time perjuring themselves.
English case divinity (as its proponents preferred to call it) was propagated through a variety of different media. As Jeremy Taylor said, the relative lack of large works of Protestant casuistry was supplemented "by excellent preachings, by private conferences, by admonitions and answers given when some more pious and religious persons came to confessors."(6) Neither was the office of spiritual guide restricted to the clergy. Richard Baxter noted with a mixture of condescension and pride that his wife Margaret, except "in cases that require learning and skill in theological difficulties," was "better at resolving a case of conscience than most divines that ever I knew in all my life." (7) Divines do not appear to have felt any professional jealousy over others occupying the role of resolvers of conscience. Indeed, in certain cases they suggested that a layman could be a more effective guide. (8) English case divinity was an open discourse, not restricted to a clerical audience but intended to be used by layp ersons as well. Richard Baxter claimed that he had begun his Christian Directory (1673) "with an Intention of that Plainness and Brevity which Families require." Despite its large size, Baxter felt his work would be useful to "private Christians" offering them "so Universal a Directory and Resolution of Doubts." (9)
Of further significance for its use as a political language was the amount of authority given to the resolutions of English casuists. Although English divines affirmed the need for a spiritual guide in difficult cases, they acknowledged that final judgment in any case rested with the individual's conscience. In doing so, they rejected what they saw as the tyranny of the Catholic confessor's resolutions over the consciences of his flock. The puritan casuist William Ames said that it was not enough "for a good conscience to adhere to the authority of men." (10) By declaring the sovereignty of the individual conscience as unimpeachable, these Protestant writers placed serious restrictions on the authority of their case resolutions.
This wariness about offering final judgment affected their methodology. There were three main ways of judging what should be done in cases where the conscience was left in a state of doubt, tutiorism, probabiliorism and probabilism. Tutiorisin (or rigorism) demanded that the less safe opinion (meaning the one where there was greater danger of sinning) should be most probable, if not absolutely certain, before it could lawfully be put into practice. The stringency of this method meant that most casuists avoided it. Conversely, probabilism suggested that it was permissible to follow a solidly probable opinion in favor of liberty even though the opposing view might be more probable. This method had initially been developed as a way of allowing confessors to avoid putting additional obligations upon penitents if it could be shown that it was probable that they were unnecessary. However, Gabriel Vasquez (1551-1604) developed a dangerous distinction by differentiating between "intrinsically" probable arguments foun ded on "excellent arguments" and "extrinsically" probable arguments founded on the authoritative decisions of wise men. The notion of extrinsic probability soon mutated into meaning only the weight of expert opinion. As a guide, intrinsic probability vanished off the theological map. (11) Protestants (and later Jansenist rigorists led by Pascal) condemned this approach as morally lax, admitting all kinds of heterodox and sinful positions. Instead, English casuistry can generally be defined as probabiliorist. This method allowed the individual to follow the less safe opinion only when it was more probable than the safe option. It was an approach that assumed that certainty could be achieved by the exercise of reason. The doubting person was to look to the nature of the action, the intention of the agent, and the circumstances surrounding the act to see if it was lawful. William Ames defined this doctrine as meaning that in doubtful cases "the safer path is to be chosen." (12)
As a consequence of their methodology, these casuists retreated from claiming that their resolutions were definitive. Frequently these divines left their conclusions open-ended. Taylor stated that where he had "not certainty in a case, or that the parts of a question were too violent contended for, without sufficient evidence on either side" he was not "very forward to give my final sentence, but my opinion and reason." (13) In his decisions, Robert Sanderson stated that he took it upon himself not to "write edicts, but to give my advice." (14)
English casuists, Anglican and Puritan, shared a Thomist conception of the conscience. They all viewed the conscience as a rational activity, operating as both the guide and judge of moral actions. As Camille Wells Slights has noted, this is a quite different definition of the conscience from that which we use today. She states that to "the Renaissance mind the conscience was less the still small voice which disturbs the sleep of the sinful than the intellectual activity of judging past action and legislating future action." (15) This definition of the conscience ensured that English casuistry was, in part, a discourse of activity and engagement rather than solely one of contemplation and introspection.
There seem to be some obvious similarities between the operation of casuistry in its usual pastoral context and its workings as a mode of political discourse. As in English casuistic divinity in general, printed, manuscript and oral media were all used to disseminate the advice of casuists in cases concerning political allegiance. Controversies provoked by the tendering of new oaths of loyalty produced large amounts of printed material. John Wallace listed seventy-two pamphlets, plays, and sermons relating to the Engagement of loyalty to the commonwealth (and his list was by no means exhaustive). (16) As pamphlets that paradoxically attempted both to answer private scruples and to place these resolutions in the public domain, writers often utilized styles that conveyed a sense of intimacy to their readership. Pamphlets were written as private letters to friends, which had proved so useful to the correspondent that they had now been printed for the public's benefit. A large number of Royalist pamphlets adopte d this format as a means to dissuade those tempted to subscribe to the two parliamentary covenants of 1643 (the Vow and Covenant passed in June and the Solemn League and Covenant with the Scots ratified in September). (17) One other means of suggesting a close relationship between author and readership was to produce the pamphlet in the form of an answer to a supposedly genuine case of conscience. This style also had the benefit of acting as a testimonial to the writer's casuistic abilities, as well as giving (often spurious) authenticity to his arguments. The irenicist John Dury framed almost all of his pamphlets produced during the Engagement Controversy as resolutions of Presbyterian scruples of conscience. His first contribution to this debate was written to an unidentified Presbyterian divine in an attempt to dissuade ministers from intervening in the controversy. (18) Dury's Objections Against the Taking of/he Engagement Answered (1650) dealt with a letter containing common scruples raised by the declar ation of loyalty to the commonwealth and answered each in turn. A later tract by Dury in the same debate ended with his (probably imaginary) respondent thanking Dury for the books he had sent and predicting the wonderful effect they would have on the scrupulous. (19)
Many pamphlets were produced in the style of instructional literature. …